May 04, 2013

Dan Dennett, Doug Hofstadter get a double-barreled takedown

They've both got new books out, and one great paired set of reviews blasts both, especially Dennett.

It appears "Uncle Dan," as he suavely calls himself is being more snide than ever. And, yes (more below) he can be snide at times, and has been for some time. Hell, how do you think he got to be a Gnu Atheist "horseman"?

But, that snideness isn't just to the living. It also, per the review, includes the dead who can't speak back, like Steve Gould. For people familiar with their smash-ups over greedy reductionism, the formal structure of evolutionary theory and more, none of this is surprising:
Intuition Pumps is valuable in providing an overview of a body of recent work in the philosophy of mind, but it suffers as well from Dennett’s penchant for cleverness—no more egregiously than in his soi-disant playfulness in mapping nasty flaws on his favorite intellectual targets, like Stephen Jay Gould. It grows tiresome and tacky: He returns to a long-ago pissing match with Gould to discuss rhetorical sleights of hand, and even coins a new word to describe the tendency to advance straw-man arguments and false dichotomies—“Goulding.”
Can't believe Dennett has hit new levels of petty via-a-vis Steve Gould, for example, but he has. And, of course, he's pretty much been recycling old thoughts for more than a decade.

And, let me add that most of the time, re Gould, that Dennett was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Definitely on his claim that evolution is algorithmic. That statement's nowhere close to being provable, let alone proven. And I suspect it never will be. That statement is also an example of the greedy reductionism Dennett can see in others but never himself.

And, recycling? Hell, yes. Dennett hasn't had major new thoughts in 15 years. No, the idea of "brights" was not major. It arguably wasn't really thought, either, but just a subtler form of the polemics he seems to exhibit in this new book.

Meanwhile, beyond "Goulding," his intuition pumps sometime involve an element of straw-manning, if we're going to coin phrases.

Finally, Dennett didn't invent the concept of Cartesian theater, as philosopher of science Steve Toulmin noted 15 years ago. (After all, he wasn't the only smart student Gilbert Ryle ever had.) More, though, he failed to carry out the idea that we lack a Cartesian theater-running self to the next logical conclusion — there's no Cartesian free willer, either. Imperfectly, a Daniel Wegner has carried that ball further down the field, as have others. 

I thank Dan Dennett for giving me an introduction to modern philosophy of mind and related subjects in a nonformal way. I thank him for the general idea of intuition pumps (which he stole from Einstein's gedankenexperiment, of course). And, I thank myself for seeing how he can insert straw men into some of them. And, I thank myself for moving beyond Dennett's introduction to these modern philosophical issues.

Hofstadter gets off relatively lightly, but not unscathed.

The biggest criticism he gets is for taking the idea of analogies too far. For being too ... er, reductionistic with it! That said, it appears to be another book chock-full of his sense of word play in the service of analogies. But, with the reviewer, I think he's all wet if he really thinks analogical thinking is the core of human thinking. Ev psych is right when it points to pattern-detectors, agency-detectors, then discriminators, as being more core. And all of those are about concepts and categories first, analogies second.

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